Intro to my memoir: Get In The Car

Having been a child of my mother and her particular lineage meant there was a bottom line to the contract that bound us as a family.  I must love cars. I must love them more than life.  Mom’s heroes were the fabulous ones that died tragically in beautiful machines at too young an age:  James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, and my mother’s Uncle Sam.   Her idea of perfume was petrol and the gas station was an aphrodisiac.

She was a fantastic driver, unafraid of speed.  Every trip, even to the store for milk, involved screeching, swerving, and near misses. Her vocabulary was sophisticated, potent, and brutal enough to cause slow pokes to pull over to the shoulder in shame.  Or so she thought it was shame.  It might have been self preservation.  It never occurred to her that she might be interpreted as a dangerous maniac.

Our family bought tons of cars to replace the totaled ones and owned the biggest gas-guzzlers ever to be spit out of Detroit’s foul factories.  My mother claimed that she would not be be caught dead in a foreign made car. Not sensing that she was a dying breed, she laughed at the sissy idea of seat belts. And if  I had the nerve to disagree with all this, like in the name of safety, I learned to keep it to myself.

Dad was born and raised in New York City and was an outsider because he viewed cars as mere transportation.  Mother taught my dad to drive in his twenties and she never let him have a moment’s peace about that fact.  She believed that if one was not behind the wheel of a car by the age of twelve, there was a devastating hole in their education. Luckily my dad was gorgeous because according to Mother, good looks and fast cars made life worth living.

But having been around for a reasonably long time at this point, I have come to believe that it wasn’t really the automobile that was Mother’s passion. It was the escape from her emotions that cars could provide, and the convoluted ability to illustrate her volcanic internal workings with as many risks, and as much speed required to make the point. Had she not had this mobile outlet, she might have exploded from the pressure of never speaking the truth.

I imagined myself to be above it all; more civilized, emotionally aware, and certainly safer.  But in writing down these stories, it’s clear that I have carried an allegiance, albeit subdued, to my mother’s legacy.  When I moved to to New York where owning a car is a liability and living without one is common, I was forced to reassess the family’s ways. Until that point, the fact that I had fallen out of three cars in my life, and my sister, Gretchen, fell out once, was normal and with it came a certain amount of pride.  Crazy as it sounds now, those tumbles elevated us in the family hall of fame, which, with my mother’s passing in 1991, has all but disappeared.

The Moment I Knew

The Moment I Knew

“It’s like trying to find traction on a sea of ice,” I said to Jeff.  “You’re risking your life!”

My husband was leaving in an ice storm for a 200-mile drive, all for one dangerous night of sex with his lover.  I couldn’t even act like the victim because after years of feeling invisible and alone, I was the first to have an affair.

“I’m not some idiotic city driver,” he replied as he turned his back.

Stomping at his heels through the house while he gathered his belongings, I said, “It doesn’t matter on ice and you know it.”

As Jeff plucked underwear out of the dresser, I writhed on our swan bed like royalty in pain in a Venetian gondola.  He was a sculptor and our home was his gallery.  His most elaborate creation was our bed.  To distract him from his potentially deadly mission, I squirmed like I had been shot.  But I really wanted to be alone that night, so much that I hadn’t informed my all-but-past-tense-lover that Jeff was leaving.

Jeff paused at the foot of this phantasmagorical bed and furrowed his brow.  He draped his arm around the graceful neck of the swan. Its carved head and beak stood taller than he. “Nothing will stop me, especially not you,” he said, and left the bedroom.

“What about the leak?” I called out to empty space. The roof recently sprang a big leak in the bedroom, a perfect metaphor for our broken marriage. Jeff was famous for knocking down walls, building extensions, and never finishing anything.  His maniacal creations left our house cold, wet, and breezy.  If it warmed up and the ice melted, as was predicted, there would be a steady drip, like water torture, right over our thirty thousand dollar bed.

“While you’re gone, I’m going to have a new roof put on this place,” I yelled toward the bathroom where I heard him peeing. To him, spending money was a bigger crime than infidelity.

“I’ll protect the bed,” he said, as he flushed the stool and headed out the garage door toward his studio.  He was making a big racket rattling through tools.  “And you’re not, getting a new roof on this house,”

With me still on the bed, Jeff was forced to install the tarp above us by prancing around my sprawled body.  He held a huge plastic tarp and a hammer in his hands, the nails in his teeth.  I rocked the mattress back and forth.  The bed teetered like a boat in a storm.  He tipsily tacked up a barrier over the circumference of the bed, jumped down to the floor, grabbed his bag and left. When I heard his high-pitched spinning wheels, I flew out of bed and ran to the front window to witness his smoking exodus.  He made it to the top of the drive and fishtailed onto the road.

The following morning, when I awoke, stretched, rolled over and opened my eyes, the tarp was swollen.  It had taken on water and the tacks that held it in place were tearing through the material. I threw off the covers but just as my bare body came in contact with the frigid air, the tarp gave way and a good half-gallon of freezing water dumped on me.  I ran for the bathroom to get a towel, laughing and crying at my wake up call.  And I said the words out loud, albeit to an empty house, the words that had been circulating in my mind for too long:  “I’m leaving.”